Snakehead fish are freshwater fish with elongated bodies and flat, scaly heads, which gives them a snake-like appearance. They have upturned mouths full of tiny teeth. On their back, they have one long dorsal fin and a long anal fin on the back half of their bellies. Size-wise, they have an extensive range, from the smallest species being 4 inches to the largest being more than 3 feet long!
Snakeheads live in Asia and Africa but have been introduced to some states in the United States. There are two genera of snakeheads, the Channa (Asian snakeheads) and the Parachanna (African snakeheads). While there are 50 species of Channa, there are only three species of Parachanna. The International Game Fish Association (IGFA) keeps records of seven different snakehead species. Can you guess how big the largest snakehead was? Let’s take a look at seven types of snakehead fish!
1. Northern Snakehead (Channa argus)
The northern snakehead is one of the species of snakeheads that has been introduced to the United States, but they are native to China, North and South Korea, and Russia. Northern snakeheads are one of the largest snakeheads, reaching lengths of 4 feet or more. They have a background color of tan and large dark brown spots and blotches. The long dorsal fin spans much of the back, and the shorter anal fin flows to almost the tail. They have a rounded tail fin and two pectoral fins set back from the head. In Asian countries, the northern snakehead is a food fish. Some of my favorite recipes include snakehead fish soup and marinated stir-fried snakehead.
Northern snakeheads are a problem in the United States because they are an invasive species. Because they can get so large and be a top predator, they threaten native species of fish and have the potential to overtake certain native fish species. They can disrupt the food web, so researchers are trying to find ways to contain and eliminate snakeheads in the United States waters.
2. Giant Snakehead (Channa micropeltes)
The next four snakeheads all have impressive names, alluding to their obvious greatness. As you can imagine, the giant snakehead is the largest of the snakehead species. They can get to be 40-50 inches long (as long as your typical kitchen table) and weigh as much as 30 pounds! The world-record giant snakehead was caught five years ago on February 28, 2018, in Rawang, Malaysia. Can you guess how much this beast weighed? The record-breaking snakehead tipped the scales at 30 pounds even! We have to give credit to the angler, Faizal Zainal, who has held the record since this mighty catch on February 28, 2018.
3. Great Snakehead (Channa marulius)
When naming species, you must admire some of the most obvious choices. The great snakehead is an awesome name for this fish that can get to be 20-24 inches long. They have gray bellies and a mix of gray and cream markings along their dorsal side. One common characteristic in all snakeheads is the ability to “breathe air” or extract oxygen from the air. This makes it easier for them to survive in oxygen-depleted waters.
The great snakehead is native to India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Thailand, Cambodia, and southern China. It is also one of the snakeheads introduced in the United States, primarily in southern Florida. Coincidentally, the largest great snakehead on record was caught off the coast of Florida. Corey Nowakowski reeled in a 15-pound, 8-ounce great snakehead on August 1, 2021. This is the largest great snakehead recorded by the IGFA, but that is not to say that bigger ones haven’t been caught in a rural village in Bangladesh, for example.
4. Splendid Snakehead (Channa lucius)
The splendid snakehead, or forest snakehead, lives in forest streams, ponds, and lakes. Their coloration of tan background with dark black splotches along their sides helps camouflage them to avoid predation and to sneak up on other fish during a hunt. They actively hunt at night and hide in the vegetation during the day. As adults, they can get to be around 14-16 inches long, a little longer than a foot-long sub! Splendid snakeheads are food fish, as are many of the snakehead species. Their skeletons don’t have a lot of tiny bones, so they are easier to prepare than some other fish. The native range of splendid snakeheads includes Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam, and Cambodia. The largest recorded splendid snakehead was caught in Kenyir, Trenggarm, Malaysia, with a weight of 4 pounds 8 ounces.
5. Emperor Snakehead (Channa marulioides)
The world’s largest emperor snakehead was also caught in Malaysia, weighing nearly twice that of the splendid record. On September 20, 2009, Yap Choo caught a large emperor snakehead that weighed 8 pounds 11 ounces. Emperor snakeheads are larger than splendid snakeheads, usually in the range of 22-26 inches. They live in rivers and lakes in Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia, including the islands of Borneo and Sumatra. Their coloration also blends in with the river and lake surroundings with a dark tan base color and dark brown vertical splotches along their sides. Fish hobbyists love keeping snakeheads in very large tanks. They report that the emperor snakehead is less aggressive than some of the other snakeheads in captivity. They seem to get along better with tank mates, especially if introduced together when young.
6. Blotched Snakehead (Channa maculata)
The blotched snakehead is easily identified by the busy patterning of dark brown blotches all along the snakehead’s body. They look similar to the North American native bowfin but are not native to North America. However, they have been spotted in the Hawaiian Islands in the United States. Their native countries include southern China and northern Vietnam. Other countries they have been introduced to include Madagascar and Japan. The largest blotched snakehead on record was caught in Ryonan-cho, Kagawa, Japan, with a weight of 6 pounds 10 ounces. Blotched snakeheads are usually in the 12-14 inch range for length. Like other snakeheads, they pair up during mating, and after the eggs are laid, both parents watch the nest. Once the eggs hatch, both parents stick around to help protect the young until they get large enough to defend themselves.
7. Chevron Snakehead (Channa striata)
The chevron snakehead is also called the “snakehead murrel” or “striped snakehead” due to its vertical striping. Even the tail fin has faint vertical stripes. These snakeheads are one of the larger snakeheads, with some reaching 2.5 feet (30 inches), but most are in the 12-16 inch range. The chevron snakehead is an important food fish in its native countries of Sri Lanka, China, India, Philippines, Pakistan, and Nepal. The IUCN has the chevron snakehead listed as a species of least concern as their population seems to be thriving. One of their adaptations is to be able to burrow into mud during dry seasons and use their ability to extract oxygen from the air to survive. In the Philippines, they call chevron snakeheads “mudfish” because of this habit.
The largest recorded chevron snakehead was caught in the JingMei River in Taipei, Taiwan. The JingMei River flows through the capital, Taipei, which is located in the northern tip of Taiwan. This record was set last year on May 15, 2022, by Peter Hsieh. Hsieh’s all-tackle record was a 12-pound, 3-ounce chevron. For reference, a gallon of paint weighs between 6 and 12 pounds. You can imagine how many fish dinners you could make from that!
Summary of 7 Types of Snakehead Fish
Here’s a recap of 7 types of snakehead fish we took at close look at:
The photo featured at the top of this post is © bigjom jom/Shutterstock.com
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